Saturday, 30 December 2017

Lead Yourself First - Inspiring Leadership through Solitude by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin - Book Review

Summary of Key Points and Argument

Lead Yourself First has an important message: we need solitude if we are to be effective leaders. Solitude provides the space that allows leaders 
  • to be analytical
  • to be intuitive
  • to be creative, and
  • to find moral courage.
Most importantly solitude allows leaders time to develop the core principles or underlying values that ground one's leadership and serve as a source of strength and direction when times are tough. Times of solitude can be found in any number of ways: on a long walk or run; in a library; or through writing a journal or daily meditation. 

The approach of the book is summarised by Jim Collins in his Foreword (Click here to download a sample of the audio book.)

Today's leaders face greater pressures because of the "always-on" culture that comes with new technologies. This makes finding solitude all the more important.
"Society did not make a considered choice to surrender the bulk of its time for reflection in favour of time spent reading tweets or texts." (p.181)
The highlight of the book for me were the insights on leadership by Doug Contant, formerly  President and CEO of the Campbell Soup Group:
"Leaders need to work on personal leadership as well as organisational leadership." 
"Leadership is an inside-out process - you need to be fortified within before you can lead people around you." (p.131)
I particularly liked the idea that Contant spends 30 minutes each morning thinking about five things:
  • My family
  • My work
  • My community
  • My faith
  • My personal well-being.
The authors suggest a number of important ways  to embrace solitude.
  1. Reset expectations:  find the balance between accessibility and distance: try putting in the calendar "time to think" each day and "no-meeting days";
  2. Find Space for solitude: get away from your computer and leave your phone behind.
  3. Prepare for solitude: "percolate beforehand" identifying issues to consider in advance.
  4. Prepare emotionally:  "Solitude brings one closer to the truth and sometimes the truth is discomforting."
  5. Embrace hard thinking:  think about complex problems.
  6. Identify your first principles and stay connected with them. Be an authentic leader.
  7. Find a higher purpose for your leadership and share it with your followers.


Overall, Lead Yourself First is a much needed reminder that leaders need to take time to reflect and ground themselves in order to do their job more effectively and in that sense it is a worthwhile read. The authors are at their best when they are analysing the issue and offering practical advice (as in the paragraph above).

However, where Lead Yourself First falls down is that the subject doesn't warrant a full book. As a consequence, the authors draw on numerous examples to illustrate its simple message. A further deficiency is that far too many of these are taken from military history (Eisenhower, TE Lawrence, General Mathis, Platoon Commander Katie Simonis, Lincoln, Hooker and Grant to mention a few). At times I felt I was reading the edited highlights of the West Point Reading List combined with the collected anecdotes from contacts made during the authors' military service. Often the length of the narrative (especially the detailed descriptions of battle scenarios) was often well out of proportion with the point that was being illustrated. In what felt like padding (and a deliberate counterblast to the military perspective) the book draws to a close with three extended historical examples of moral courage: Churchill, Martin Luther-King and Karol Woytyla (Pope John-Paul II), without much application to the book's themes.

Having said that, many of the examples were interesting in their own right - it was an unexpected pleasure to fill in some gaps in my knowledge of the US Civil War and of C20 History - but I did not think that the authors worked hard enough to draw out the lessons of their many examples to further their argument about leadership in a significant way. 

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